What It Really Means to Be Ghosted
New research into relationship endings shows how many simply just stop contact.
Posted June 26, 2022 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- Ghosting is a way of ending a relationship with somebody by stopping communication without offering an explanation.
- Social commentary suggests ghosting is driven by technology, but around half of young people have been ghosted by somebody they met in person.
- The effects of ghosting on future relationships remain largely unclear.
As our lives become more technologically driven, our reliance on face-to-face interactions has gradually diminished. From arranging meet-ups with friends to forming new romantic relationships, our lives have been transformed by digital communication strategies.
However, while these technological advances often make it easier to communicate in real-time with people not in your immediate environment, our move away from face-to-face contact also makes it easier to stop communication without explanation, via "blocking" on social apps, or pausing communication altogether. This strategy has been referred to as "ghosting," but as yet there is no academic definition of this term. New research has started to fill this gap.
Developing a Definition of Ghosting
According to one definition published in the New York Times back in 2015, "ghosting" refers to the process of "ending a romantic relationship by cutting off all contact and ignoring the former partner's attempts to reach out." Although this definition is simple, it gives an idea of what is involved—breaking off communication without explanation as a way of cooling-off contact and ending a relationship. Other definitions are more specific and suggest that this is a uniquely technological phenomenon, and that the ending of contact is usually sudden and unexpected. However, there is far from a consensus on the definition of "ghosting."
This lack of definitional clarity led Erin Leigh Courtice—a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Ottawa in Canada—and Caitlyn Kay to conduct a review of what is currently known about ghosting. Speaking of the phenomenon, Courtice said that "ghosting is an interesting form of relationship dissolution because it allows one person to end a relationship indirectly, bypassing the discomfort of directly telling someone you aren’t interested in continuing a relationship with them. However, it also introduces uncertainty about the relationship status (particularly for the person being ‘ghosted’) because the relationship has not officially been ‘ended.'"
As a motivating factor for their research, Courtice and her colleagues were concerned about research prompts such as "Have you ever been ghosted?" because, without a definition, participants' subjective understandings of the term would ultimately guide their responses. This leads researchers to collect potentially unreliable data, which may warp the accuracy of prevalence statistics and research into both the motivations of ghost partners and the effects of being ghosted.
How Common Is Ghosting?
The researchers surveyed around 500 young adults in Canada to explore their experiences of ghosting, as well as their conceptions of what this actually means. In the sample, around 50% of participants reported having ghosted a partner who they had met offline (e.g., in a bar or at a party), in contrast to 45% who had ghosted somebody they met online. For victimization, the researchers found a similar trend, with around 45% of people having been ghosted by someone they met offline, and 35% having been the victim of ghosting by somebody they met virtually.
These data suggest that ghosting is far from a technological phenomenon, but it is possible that the regularity with which communication becomes driven by technology (e.g., WhatsApp messaging) even among those who originally met in person makes ghosting an easier way to end a relationship.
Developing a Working Definition of 'Ghosting'
Courtice and her team analyzed the open-text responses of participants about ghosting and found that themes related to the sudden ending of communication were commonplace in people's understandings of the term. This suggests that a more gradual ending of a relationship may not "count" as ghosting for many, and that somebody experiencing this may be aware of a relationship coming to an end.
From a behavioral standpoint, participants appeared to endorse subtle forms of ghosting in their definitions. That is, while explicitly blocking somebody (i.e., preventing them from making contact or viewing your information) was only endorsed as a form of ghosting by around 5% of people, while ignoring, avoiding, or simply not responding to messages were much more common features of people's definitions. This led Courtice to suggest:
In our study, we found that an appropriate definition of ghosting is as follows: “One way that people can end a relationship is by ghosting. Ghosting is when one person suddenly ignores or stops communicating with another person, without telling them why.”
It is our hope that people can share the same understanding of what "ghosting" is (and what it is not); our definition provides the first step towards this shared understanding. This will enable researchers to study people’s experiences with ghosting more accurately and provide the public with useful information about the possible consequences related to ghosting.
The Effects of Being 'Ghosted'
Although the researchers did not explicitly study the effects of ghosting, previous work does highlight the negative effects of having contact suddenly withdrawn by a partner. However, this work is typically correlational, and so establishing whether ghosting causes these negative effects (or vice versa) is difficult. Speaking to this issue, Courtice added: "Other researchers have also found evidence suggesting that being ghosted may be associated with experiencing negative psychological or emotional consequences. However, we can’t know for sure if it is ghosting that has caused those negative outcomes (a problem of correlation versus causation). We also don’t know how ghosting or being ghosted might impact people long-term (e.g., does ghosting or being ghosted have lasting impacts on people’s future relationships or experiences with dating?). Research on ghosting is still in very early stages, and we are very interested to learn more about this phenomenon in the future!"
It is also unclear whether ghosting is a specific issue for romantic relationships coming to an end, or whether similar themes are present in relation to the sudden loss of friendships. These are interesting topics to tackle in future studies. However, this work on defining ghosting is a vital first step in helping scientists to understand this emerging social phenomenon.
The research is published now in the journal Personal Relationships.
Kay, C., & Courtice, E. L. (2022). An empirical, accessible definition of "ghosting" as a relationship dissolution method. Personal Relationships, 29(2), 386-411. https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12423